Watercress of the Pure Springs

Roddy Maclean tells how wild watercress is celebrated in Gaelic culture.

Leugh ann an Gàidhlig / Read in Gaelic

In his final paean to the mountains he had loved so much in his youth, the great Gaelic bard, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812) wrote lovingly, as he often did, of his native Highland environment. In Cead Deireannach nam Beann ‘a final farewell to the bens’, Duncan, by now 78 years old and having surrendered ‘a third of his breathing’ to age, speaks with affection of the deer, game birds and people who shared his mountain space. But, in that final poem, he names only one plant species – and it is an interesting choice. Here is the last verse:

Mo shoraidh leis na frìthean, O ’s mìorbhaileach na beannan iad,

Le biolair uaine ’s fìor-uisg’, Deoch uasal rìomhach cheanalta;

Na blàran a tha prìseil, Na fàsaichean tha lìonmhor,

O ’s ait a leig mi dhìom iad, Gu bràth mo mhìle beannachd leo’.

I bid farewell to the deer-forests, Oh! how wonderful are the mountains,

With green watercress and spring water, a noble, elegant, gentle drink;

The moors which are so precious, the pastures which are so plentiful,

Oh, joyfully I took my leave of them, forever my thousand blessings on them.

At first sight, Duncan’s choice of the biolair ‘watercress’ (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) – pronounced approximately ‘BYOO-lur’ with a short ‘OO’ – might seem a little strange. It is not a colourful or remarkably striking plant, and neither is it particularly rare. But it said something of the hills to Duncan and he mentions it again in the finest of his other nature poems. In Moladh Beinn Dòrain ‘praise of Ben Dorain’, for example, he writes of the red deer hind drinking the sweet water of the spring where grows the watercress (the variant biolaire is used by the bard to maintain the rhythm of the poem):

            Fuaran anns am bi biolaire gun dìth,

            ʼS mìlse leath’ na ʼm fìon, ʼs e gun òladh i

            A spring where the watercress grows abundantly,

            Which she considered sweeter than wine as she would drink it

Watercress. Photo © Roddy Maclean

Of course, how would Duncan know of the sweetness of the spring water without having partaken of it himself, and I suspect that it is the plant’s aquatic habitat, and its connection to water (which possesses special qualities in traditional Celtic culture) that underlies its appeal. If we can place credence in a poet’s description of the ecology, then watercress appears to have been more abundant in Duncan’s day than it is today. Here is a commentary from his classic poem Coire a’ Cheathaich ‘the misty corrie’, written of a locality he knew well (in the borderlands of Perthshire and Argyll) from his days as a forester and hunter:

Tha mala ghruamach den bhiolair uaine

Mun h-uile fuaran a th’ anns an fhonn …

there is a sombre brow of green watercress

around every spring in the land …

Duncan’s inclusion of the adjective uaine ‘green’ is the poet’s means of maintaining the complex rhyming and rhythm of his work, but the descriptor also differentiates this species from others in which biolair might appear in the name, such as the biolair-ghriagain, a variant name for the cuckooflower. Biolair(e) on its own is a generic for watercress (the commercial variety has been referred to as biolair-Fhrangach ‘French cress’) and the wild plant found in Scotland is also known as biolair-uisge ‘water-cress’ or biolair an fhuarain ‘cress of the (water) spring’.

The etymology of biolair is unclear but an early Gaelic form, given by Alexander Macbain in his Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, is biror which might refer to its watery habitat (bir anciently meaning ‘water’ or ‘well’). The plant is also known as dobhar-lus or dobhrach ‘water plant’, again based on an archaic word for ‘water’. However, John Cameron in his ‘Gaelic Names of Plants’ (1883) says that biolair refers to something that ‘causes the nose to smart’, corresponding to the nasturtium in the plant’s scientific name (its original genus was Nasturtium).

Intriguingly, in the light of this interpretation, in another of his fine nature-praise poems Òran an t-Samhraidh ‘song of the summer’, Duncan Bàn mentions mo roghainn de shnaoisean sròine e ‘it’s my choice of nose-snuff’ in the verse before the one in which he praises watercress, but he seems to be referring, not to the aquatic plant, but to the birch tree. Here is the following quatrain in which the bard praises watercress:

ʼS a’ bhiolair luideach, shlìom-chluasach,

Glas, chruinn-cheannach, chaoin, ghorm-neulach

Is i fàs glan, uchd-àrd, gilmeanach

Fo bhàrr geal, iomlan, sònraichte …

The ragged, sleek-eared watercress,

Tight-headed, tender, matt-green

She grows clean, pert, dainty

Below a white, whole, special top…

Watercress was not solely a symbol of well-watered mountainsides, carrying beauty in its abundant foliage and attractive white flowers. It was also a foraged food source of no little importance to the populace; John Cameron says that ‘among the poorer classes, water-cress formed a most important auxiliary to their ordinary food’. It is nutritionally valuable and can be encouraged to grow by modifying drainage, so that it can be found in abundance in some localities. However, it is interesting that, despite it being sometimes promoted today as a good and nutritious food when eaten raw, the old Gaels would invariably cook it well. A soup made from the plant (its use was recorded on Colonsay) was called brot biolarach ‘watercress soup’.

There might have been good reason for boiling it (and also pounding it before cooking it). If there is livestock adjacent to the watercourse where watercress grows, the plant can become contaminated with liver fluke, posing a health hazard to humans. Foragers are advised to cut the plant with scissors above the waterline, but perhaps the only truly safe raw watercress is that grown in ponds where livestock have no access.

Abundant and accessible. Harvesting the watercress here, in a West Highland setting close to sea level, is very tempting, but the author avoids it because of the proximity of livestock. Photo © Roddy Maclean

To the old Gaels, watercress was not just a food source – it was also consumed as a hot decoction as a cure for cold, flu and fevers. It was also eaten within the traveller community as a cure for the nausea induced by too much smoking of tobacco. Latterly, its use appears to have been scattered in the Gàidhealtachd. Speaking on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal in August 2000, the late Donnie MacRury of Stilligarry in South Uist said the plant was little used in Uist, but that he had learned of its usefulness from his mother who was a native of Tiree. He would add vinegar to the pot and cook the watercress only briefly in order not to destroy the Vitamin C. His interview (see Tobar an Dualchais) ranges as far back as the Romans and Ancient Greeks who used the species widely.

Another great Gaelic bard who wrote of the biolair was Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald). In his environmental praise-poem Allt an t-Siùcair ‘sugar brook’, written of a location in Ardnamurchan, he says:

Gur milis, briosg-gheal, bùrn-ghlan

meall-chùirneanach ’s binn fuaim,

bras-shruthain Allt-an-t-Siùcair

ri torman siùbhlach, luath;

gach biolair ’s luibh le ’n ùr-ròs

a’ cinntinn dlùth mu bhruaich,

’s e toirt dhaibh bhuadhan sùghmhor

dhan t-subhachas mun cuairt.

I give here the translation offered by Anne Lorne Gillies in her wonderful book ‘Songs of Gaelic Scotland’ (Birlinn 2005) – a copy of which should be in every Highland home!

Sweet, limpid, fresh-watered,

dew-spattered, sweet-sounding,

swift-streaming in the Sugar Brook

with its fast-moving, swift music;

each water-cress plant and herb with its fresh colour

growing close along its bank,

and adding their own luscious properties

to the delights of all around them.

Biolair also makes an unusual appearance as a personal name in a traditional story, collected in Gairloch, of the Gaelic heroes known as the Fianna. The central character of the tale is Mac Gille Mhaoil na Cruit ‘MacMillan the Harpist’ who comes to live with a local MacDonald man, and who is inordinately knowledgeable about the Fianna, reciting tales every night. Following his death, he is buried in poor circumstances after which the MacKenzie laird of Gairloch expresses his regret for not giving him a more noble burial, for his real (unexplained) identity was Biolair Uasal MacFhinn ‘Noble Watercress, Son of Fionn’. Is this a botanical alias for the zoological Oisean (Ossian), whose name means ‘little deer’, employing a plant of similar cultural status to the iconic deer?

Despite its relative prominence in poetry, watercress is not common in place names of the Highlands. I am familiar with one – the Lòn Biolaireach ‘marsh abounding in watercress’, south of Loch Frisa on Mull. The burn running through the area, much of it now under plantation forest, is Allt an Lòin Bhiolairich (Allt an Lòn Biolaireich OS).

An Lòn Biolaireach ‘the marsh abounding in watercress’ on Mull. The map dates from the 1920s, before plantation forestry cloaked this part of the island, altering the native ecology. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Watercress makes a notable, if occasional, appearance in traditional Gaelic songs. In the òran basaidh ‘clapping song’ Latha Siubhal Beinne Dhomh ‘a day when I travelled the mountain’ – a type of song often sung at the end of a session of tweed-waulking – a man tells of meeting a beautiful young woman who is out collecting daisies and watercress. He asks for a kiss, but she tells him to go away as he is just a shaggy old bodach and not nearly as refined as her own people!

The classic and well-known ditty Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric ‘the cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric’ tells of the old woman of the mountain – often considered a pagan spirit goddess – who protected the deer of the wild places. In the final verse, the cailleach names her favourite plant – the watercress. Here is a version collected on Skye:

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

A’ bhiolair uain, a’ bhiolair uain’,

B’ annsa leam a’ bhiolair uain’,

Bhitheadh air bruthach nam fuar-bheann àrd.

I would like best the watercress

The watercress, the watercress,

I would like best the watercress

That would be on the slope of the cold high mountains.

However, the wording of a version from Glenmoriston makes more sense to me, in terms of the habitat in which the plant is found – and also that the (original?) cailleach of Beinn a’ Bhric in Lochaber was associated with a fuaran ‘spring/well’ on the mountain, which is still named on OS maps (Fuaran Cailleach Beinn a’ Bhric, NN313640). In this version, collected by Alexander MacDonald, author of ‘Story and Song from Loch Ness-side’ (p.231), the final line is Bhitheadh air bruach an fhuarain àird ‘that would be on the bank of the high spring’. Exactly where the watercress grows.

Perhaps it’s worth finishing with a wee naidheachd ‘anecdote’ from John Cameron, which refers to a ‘curious old superstition respecting the power of this plant as a charm to facilitate milk-stealing’. Here is Cameron’s account, with the Gaelic orthography modernised: ‘Not long ago, an old woman was found, on a May morning, at a spring-well, cutting the tops of water-cresses with a pair of scissors, muttering strange words, and the names of certain persons who had cows, also the words ʼS leamsa leth do chuid-sa” (half thine is mine). She repeated these words as often as she cut a sprig, which personated the individual she intended to rob of his milk and cream.’

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

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